5 Scientific Reasons Your Idea of Happiness Is Wrong

Our two favorite subjects at Cracked are the elusive concept of human happiness and Batman. This article is about the first one.

If you're looking for an answer to "How can I be happy?" then the response from the experts is, "You're asking the wrong question." The better question is why our idea of happiness is so screwed up that most of us wouldn't recognize the real thing if we saw it. Well ...

#5. What We're Calling Happiness is a Recent Invention

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This should blow your mind: The entire concept that you can become happy via some action you can take is a relatively recent invention. And the concept that a person should be happy, and that anything else is the result of some unusual breakdown in the system, is extremely recent.

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"I'd define happiness as less than four types of lice on my body."

Now, before everyone digs out their old goth clothes and screams, "Aha! We told you that the world was just an endless black ocean of suffering!" that's actually the opposite of the point we're making. It appears that the reason so many people profess to be miserable is specifically because they think they're missing out on some magical emotion that "happy" people feel all the time. They're tormenting themselves over the loss of something that nobody actually has, because that thing doesn't even have a definition.

See, the thing is that humans have never actually settled on what "happiness" is. A historian named Darrin McMahon exhaustively studied how happiness has been viewed over the last few thousand years and found that it was constantly changing.

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"I'd say I define happiness as less than three types of lice on my body."

Go back to ancient Greece and it's very simple: Happiness = Luck. Either the gods dribbled their joy juice on you or didn't; either way, there was nothing you could do about it. And that was it, end of conversation. It was nothing to get upset about. In fact, in every European language, the root of the word for happiness is some older word that meant "luck." Ours comes from the old Norse and Old English word "hap", and hap simply means "luck."

Flash forward to Aristotle's day, 335-ish B.C. Philosophers of the time considered happiness to be synonymous with virtue. In other words, do good to feel good. If you didn't feel good, it meant you weren't being virtuous enough. Now, we don't want to come off as cynical here, but it almost sounds like this was when they started using this elusive idea of happiness as a motivational tool. Happiness is the carrot on the stick that makes you do all of the things that keep society running smoothly.

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"All of this will be worth it, once I'm able afford that crack habit I've been longing for."

After that, you get into medieval times when early Christians saw happiness as something a soul was to be rewarded with in heaven, and not something attainable in the mortal world. Then the Renaissance came along and brought us the concept of pleasure equaling happiness. Keep in mind, those two ideas weren't always connected -- the old-school thinkers described happiness as the overall state of somebody who had lived their life well, completely separating it from that feeling you get when you eat a warm cookie or play with a puppy.


"I'm deeply, spiritually satisfied about the number of puppies I've played with."

But the new definition of happiness seemed to be "you feel like you're playing with a puppy, all the time." Then the Enlightenment declared that everyone had a right to be happy, and by the time the American Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, the "pursuit of happiness" was declared an inalienable right, endowed by the creator. That's a damned 180-degree turn from what the ancient Greeks thought. And if we're defining happiness as 24/7 puppy time, then it doesn't work.


"... with liberty and puppies for all."

Not according to science, anyway. Because ...

#4. You Physically Can't Feel Happiness for Very Long

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Quick: What's the final line of every fairy tale you know? "And they all lived ..."

Yes, everybody realizes life is not a fairy tale, or a Hollywood movie (where 99 percent of the time, the final shot implies, "And they lived happily ever after"). We say we realize that, anyway. Yet, people still talk about happiness like there is some finish line. Once you cross it, you'll have "achieved happiness."

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"The first 10 to not hate their lives win a free hat!"

Don't take our word for it -- go to Amazon.com and search for the words "achieve happiness" and check out how many self-help books promise they'll get you to that destination:

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Yes, the No. 1 result is by Russell Simmons.

Well, science says it's not possible.

As it turns out, the human brain is equipped with "hedonic set points" which not only establish where our base mood is (optimistic, pessimistic or indifferent); but also adapts rather quickly to our surroundings and returns to our base frame of mind. Basically, we all have a built-in buzzkill app.

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"Laugh all you want. That romantic comedy won't halt your inevitable demise."

In 1978, a research group studied lottery winners, regular assholes and those who had suffered injuries rendering them paraplegic or quadriplegic. All groups reported a similar number of good days versus bad days, with no clear victor in the happiness race.

On the bright side, these studies show that people adapt better than they think they would to devastating situations. The triumph of the human spirit, etc. But on the flip side, if you're completely miserable now, achieving your goals will probably only result in a slight surge on the happiness meter and then you'll be right back to your crotchety old self.

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"This Nobel Prize is lovely, but right now, I'm much more interested in learning the banjo."

Some psychologists refer to this trend as the "hedonic treadmill," saying that we experience only a brief moment of fleeting happiness when we achieve a goal before our minds look forward to the next conquest.

And ... look at that. There's the carrot and the stick again. Only instead of coming in the form of some philosopher or book telling you if you do the following, you will be happy in the future, it's your own brain. It's triggering a built-in mechanism to keep you from getting complacent. Either way, the promise of happiness just over the next hill turns out to be a tool to keep you climbing hills.

#3. Money Can Buy Happiness. .. Sort of

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It's no shock that personal satisfaction goes up with income, though not to the degree that some people think. There is no question that the anxiety that comes with knowing somebody is going to repossess your house at any moment is hard as hell on your happiness levels.

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But once you have no home at all? Pure bliss.

But when you do have some above-poverty level of income, how do you spend the money? When it comes time to splurge on something fun, some of you focus on new possessions (a TV, a video game console, a family of multiracial blow-up dolls) while others are more likely to buy experiences (a massage, dinner at a fancy restaurant, a concert, a "massage").

Well, you don't have to look very hard to find a study saying that materialism has a devastating toll on the happiness fund as well as the bank account. While we have an entire economic system and popular culture built to cater to it, science says that endless pursuit of stuff leads to decreased life satisfaction, decreased happiness, depression, paranoia and narcissism. Holy shit!

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That's a hollow smile on his face.

The obvious problem is that possessions are like a physical manifestation of the hedonistic treadmill we just discussed -- your fancy new car accumulates scratches and door dings and burrito sauce stains on the seats. It degrades right in front of your eyes. The new computer gets slower every day you own it. And, before long, somebody you know will buy a nicer one that makes yours look like a sad, computer-shaped turd and then all of your new-gadget happiness is released into the atmosphere in a black cloud of euphoria emissions.

You get better results, the experts say, from spending money on experiences -- a concert, a vacation, a clothing-optional cruise. If those events go well, they tend to get better in your memory as time goes on.

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"In a few years, we won't even remember how much puking we did this week."

But get this -- when doing a study of vacationers, the happiest people were the ones in the weeks leading up to a vacation. It was all about anticipation. Again, it looks like our brain rewards us more for working toward a goal than for actually arriving there. The study actually suggests taking more frequent, shorter vacations. You know, so you can spend more time anticipating them.

Wait, didn't we say that in medieval times their whole thing was just telling people they'd be happy after they died? So they'd spend their whole lives in that anticipation mode? We're not experts. Just throwing that out there.

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"Just a couple more decades of backbreaking labor and then cash-out!"

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